Whether they were soldiers in the trenches, or family members waiting for news at home, many people turned to poetry to express the horrors and tragedies they witnessed during the First World War.
A hundred years on from the four-year-long battle and many of these poems are still being read, recited and analysed. Here are just a few of the most popular poems from WWI.
1) In Flanders Field by John McCrae
It’s widely believed that doctor and poet John McCrae first began writing his famous poem 'In Flanders Fields' on the 2nd May 1915 during the Second Battle of Ypres. It’s thought that he was inspired by the death of his close friend Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, who was killed in battle at the age of 22.
2) Rupert Brooke: The Soldier
Written by Rupert Brooke at the beginning of the First World War, 'The Soldier' is a patriotic sonnet that expresses the English poet’s love for his country. In the very first line, Brooke explains that if he dies, he’d rather mourners think of the corner of a foreign field that will be 'forever England.'
When he writes 'a dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware', it could be that he’s referring to his own ashes, forever a part of the land. However, this is open to interpretation and could refer to the ashes of English soldiers in general.
3) Rupert Brooke: The Soldier
Written by author Rudyard Kipling to commemorate his son John, who died in battle during WWI, My Boy Jack is a poem about a father’s desperation. For two years, John was on the 'missing, believed wounded' list which caused unimaginable stress for his father who was waiting for news of his son’s fate. It wasn’t until 1992 that John’s body was identified, but even now some historians claim that his grave is home to the wrong person’s remains. In 2007, Kipling’s poem inspired a film starring Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe and an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum.
4) Dulce et Decorum Est, by Wilfred Owen
Dulce et Decorum Est is one of Wilfred Owen’s most famous poems. With vibrant imagery detailing the horrors that soldiers faced in WWI, the poem paints a picture of those on the battlefield before a poison gas attack. One soldier doesn’t get his helmet on in time and is thrown into a wagon as other troops watch in horror as he dies.
At the end of the poem, its title is repeated when Owen writes: “My friend, you would not tell with such high zest, To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est. Pro patria mori”.
'Dulce et Decorum est' means 'it is sweet and honourable…' and 'Pro patria mori' means 'to die for one’s country.' After going into such graphic detail about how a soldier died, it could be argued that Owen was mocking the idea that it is an honour to die for one’s country.
5) Break of Day in the Trenches, by Isaac Rosenberg
Isaac Rosenberg’s 'Break of Day in the Trenches' is a poem which contemplates life and death for those in battle. Filled with violent imagery, almost every line suggests death in some way. However, in the same breath each reference also hints at life too. It’s this juxtaposition that has made Rosenberg’s poem so unique. For example, in the first few lines he talks about letting a rat touch his hand and suggests that others would shoot it if they knew it was there. He also jokes that the “droll” animal is able to survive in the fields of battle, while men around him die.
6) Here dead we lie, by A. E. Housman
In just eight short lines, A. E. Housman talks about the sacrifices young men took when fighting in the war and the pride and honour of dying while in service of the nation. The poem discusses war and death in a very matter-of-fact way, simply stating that life is not much to lose.
Reading poetry from the First World War can be offer great insight into the lives of soldiers and their families. For history students looking to really immerse themselves in the history of WWI and pay respect to those that lost their lives 100 years on, a school trip to Ypres and Somme could be a great opportunity.